How a boat journey in the mid-1960s started Kerala’s Gulf Boom

Kerala has become a state fueled by a remittance economy, but the origins of this, dates back to several decades.
Cochin Airport
Cochin Airport
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In the summer of 1980, I visited Kerala’s Varkala in Thiruvanathapuram for the first time. It was the peak of the first Gulf boom. The media was full of stories on the ones who had made it big. But I was doing an article on the petrodollar paupers — the ignored ones — the migrants who had returned home in distress. I had met quite a few of them already and then I was on my way to meet Shahjahan, a 31-year-old who had come back after being bailed out of a prison in the United Arab Emirates by his elder brother. His crime? The most common one: He had gone to Dubai without a visa.

Varkala was once a small overgrown fishing village 30 kilometres north of Thiruvananthapuram, the city where I once lived. It had an interesting history of migration. The adventurous young men from here and the surrounding villages of Chirayankil had for long travelled to Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Those “Singapore Yatrakar” (travellers) had toiled in the docks, on plantations and on construction sites, leaving their wives behind to keep the home fires burning.

First exodus in the 60s

The first exodus to the Gulf started in a small way in the 1960s when those countries turned oil-rich. A couple of groups of young “pioneers” set out by “Kalla kappal” (country-made boat) without a single document. The journey by the country craft took several days and sometimes even months. It was an unpleasant voyage and their future when they landed was unpredictable. The dhow (country craft in Arabic) would drop them off far away from the shore and they would have to swim across the sea for the last bit.

Those pioneers, who had mostly come from impoverished families, all landed menial jobs. They struggled hard under the burning desert sun, building roads, working at the drilling sites and even working in camel farms. The salaries they got in Qatar-Dubai riyals (the UAE currency before dirhams after 1973) seemed large when compared to the meagre amounts they would have earned for a similar job back home.  They lived frugal lives sending most of their earnings back home to their families.

When the boom in construction activities happened in the early 1970s, these men started helped recruit their friends and relatives. And thus, the big exodus began.

Life was still very hard in the Gulf, but there was hope. Wages had gone up and there were legitimate means of getting work in the oil-rich countries.

When Varkala became mini Dubai

The 70s and the early 80s were brimming with opportunities. Life in Varkala had become more buoyant. There was a mood of expectancy and hope. 

Overnight “millionaires” swaggered home on holidays. They built brightly coloured manzils (houses) with their petrodollars. Land values had gone up. A dozen nationalised banks had sprung up along with some private schools and private hospitals.

By the time I went there, Varkala had become a “Kochu Dubai”, flooded with foreign goods. It became a town where almost every young man was either on his way to the Middle East or had just returned.

With that, many peripheral jobs, all linked to the Gulf Exodus, had sprung up. The all-important NOC (No Objection Certificate), which was needed to get a visa, had spun money-making opportunities — touts who sold fraud NOCs at astronomical prices to the gullible; recruiting agents who scoured the town for prospective candidates; money lenders who gave huge loans at high interest rates to men who wanted to purchase NOCS overnight; travel agents; passport providers; and of course, the ubiquitous contractors working on buildings that were sprouting up everywhere.

Stories of disasters amidst the Gulf boom

Yet, in 1980, there was also a sense of unease, of impending doom. Some of the men were coming back with horror stories of living on an edge in an unknown country, with no prospect of a job. There were those whose passports were confiscated by an agent or employer and they had no way to get back home. Some like Shajahan, whom I had come to meet, had spent time in jail.

Thirty-year-old Shajahan’s family lived in a thatched hut with mud flooring right in the middle of prosperous Varkala town. His elder brother Kidher Mohammed had just bailed him out of a UAE prison and sent him home. But he was home only temporarily, he told me. He had to go back and earn if he wanted to clear his huge debts. His father Hyder, a fisherman, nodded in agreement. “It is only at his age that you can struggle and earn a living,” he said.

Shajahan had been living in Dubai since 1975. He had bought his NOC for Rs 5,000 then. He raised the money by selling his sister’s jewellery. For three years, out of the 1,000 dirhams he earned every month, he was able to send home 500 dirhams (which is over Rs 10,000 today). This was used to pay off some of his debts. He also helped his brother Kidher buy an NOC and go to Abu Dhabi in 1978. 

The same year, Shahjahan returned home but he had no money left to buy himself another NOC. 

So when he went back, he went without a valid visa, thinking he would manage somehow. But, when he landed he became one of the first victims of a crackdown that happened soon after. He spent the next two years in jail.

There was a mood of despondency in the cramped hut where the large family consisting of seven adults and six children lived. “I cannot go back right now,” he told me as we both sat on plastic mats spread on the floor.   

“But I cannot stay here forever. Who will provide for these people? I have two unmarried sisters and two baby daughters,” he said.

The hut had many small indicators (like the plastic mats on which we sat) that showed it was the home of a ‘Persia kaaran’, a man who had returned from the Gulf. But the frugality of their existence belied it.

This little drama in Varkala was happening in 1980 when the first Gulf boom was at its peak. Even as the government was trying to figure out how to mop up the remittances flowing in, the individual stories of the disaster continued side by side.

However, by and large, the profile of the Gulf emigrants has changed over the 1970s. 

The new Gulf Malayalis

The poor and illiterate manual labourers still formed the bulwark, but among the new emigrants, there was a huge component of blue-collar and skilled workers, like nurses, technicians, doctors, engineers and teachers.

By now, the NOC was a valuable document in the middle-class marriage market. It could transform the prospects of a groom and could also be dangled as bait in lieu of dowry. As long as the remittances came in regularly, no one asked the man what job he did or how he lived. Families grew up raised by single mothers and got to see their fathers only once in a couple of years, for a month or two.

By the early 1980s, the real Gulf boom had started. Highly skilled specialists were moving there in large numbers with their families. They earned well, sent their children to the best schools, built good homes, hospitals and schools in their native villages. A good number of women professionals joined the exodus. 

The Kerala government was talking about channelising their remittances and putting them to use. The young men, who had escaped from Kerala because there was no scope for entrepreneurship, became successful entrepreneurs themselves.

In the Thiruvananthapuram airport those days, there were two types of Gulf returnees. The first type was the heavily-suited returnee, carrying posh luggage and exuding an aura of newfound wealth. They were the ones jubilantly taken away home by the crowds of relatives who came all the way from their native village to meet them.

And then there were the others, the petrodollar paupers who stood desolate and alone, carrying cheap suitcases full of “foreign goods”, which they hoped to sell and cut their losses. Often, to add to their miseries, they would have been fleeced by nasty customs officials in Bombay, who took their dirhams in lieu of customs duty.

Drop in remittance due to pandemic

Forty years down the line, the story is radically different. The population of Kerala in 1980 was around 2.3 crore. By 2008, the population was over 3 crore. Eighty-eight percent of the emigrants from this tiny state had gone to the Gulf and the remittances they sent now amounted to nearly Rs 45,000 crore. This had made a significant impact on their standard of living for the general population.

A survey conducted by noted demographers KC Zachariah and S Irudayarajan for the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, put the total number of Keralites living abroad in 2014 at 2.40 million. Ninety percent of them were in the Middle East. This number had grown from 1.36 million in 1998. By 2019, the remittances to Kerala had gone up from $14 to $15 billion. Kerala had become a state fueled by a remittance economy.

But now, things are set to drastically change. In 2020, it is estimated that there will be a steep drop in remittances as more and more emigrants return home, felled by the double whammy of the pandemic and the severe oil-related economic crisis, which has hit the Middle East countries.   

Economists estimate Kerala may be looking at a $2 billion drop. Will the state, which has weathered floods and epidemics so bravely, be able to pull through this crisis as well?

Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and the author of ‘Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide'.

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